Music welcomes leaders from the Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities to a public hall on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar.
It’s the first time leaders from different faiths have gathered together for a multi-religious tour. The event, organised by the All Religions Unity Organisation, is designed to foster peace amid rising sectarian tensions in Myanmar.
“We want to send a message across the country that Buddhists and Muslims, and other religions can live together peacefully,” says U Than Aung, a Buddhist and the group’s spokesperson.
“If every town in our country holds a meeting together like this, there will be no more conflict,” he says.
Nearly 250 people have died and tens of thousands have been left homeless due to a series of religious conflicts in the past year. It was the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in May last year that sparked the deadly chain of events.
Violence escalated as the Muslim minority and Buddhist community attacked each other.
The situation is still tense, but for the first time ever Myanmar’s religious leaders are coming together to try to resolve the conflict.
The event started with a tour of different religious sites, from mosques, to churches and Buddhist and Hindu temples.
U Yuzana Thara, a Buddhist monk who joined the tour said he hopes similar tours will be organized in other cities.
“During the meeting, all the religious leaders speak their minds, from their own perspective... and this way we can understand each other,” he says, “I think this is a good start. If every town does the same as us, there will be no conflict and we can live together.”
The aim of the activities is to foster a better understanding of each other, says U Than Aung.
“Conflict occurs when each ethnicity and religion looks at each other with suspicion. To end the conflict, we need to realise that every religion should be able to practice freely,” he says.
U Than Aung says that if Myanmar follows its democratic principles, allowing people to believe whatever they want, a harmonious and peaceful society will naturally follow.
A group led by the radical Buddhist monk, Wirathu, has largely driven the religious conflict in Myanmar. Jailed in 2003 for inciting religious hatred, a recent edition of TIME magazine pictured Wirathu on the front page with the title: “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”
This week, the monk was the target of a car bomb. He was unharmed but was quick to accuse “Muslim extremists” of carrying out the attack.
Many believe the religious conflicts are endangering the political reforms in Myanmar and targeted threats and hate speech must be stopped.
Myanmar is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, with a strong Buddhist majority and Muslims make up roughly 5 percent of the population.
Khin Thazawin, a 23-year-old who lives in Mon State, says that in many cases Myanmar’s Buddhists and Muslims get along.
“I get along well with my Muslim friends,” she says, “They come to celebrate Buddhist rituals and I also join their rituals. They are not extremists.”
Many have warned that religious conflict could hamper the country’s reform process.
What’s more, U Than Aung suggests that they’re politically motivated.
“We think that they want a U-turn in politics. They’re playing a game with us. They think the country’s current political situation is not beneficial for them,” he says, adding there are rumors that some want to see a return to military rule.
Earlier this month, President Thein Sein admitted that tensions like these could undermine the country’s reforms. He vowed to punish the perpetrators, both Buddhists and Muslims.
But a draft sedition law has been circulating around the country. Wirathu proposed the law, which is aimed at curbing interfaith marriage in the hope it could help stop religious conflicts in the future.
But monk U Yuzana Thara doesn’t agree.
“We must see everyone who lives in our country as a human being…We can’t avoid or separate from each other because of our beliefs,” he says, “We are not interested in making trouble with other religions.”
U Than Aung also says it’s everyone’s responsibility to stop the conflict.
“Now our country is in a transitional, peace-building period,” he says, “We should stop religious conflict. All the leaders agree with our aims and are willing to cooperate with us.”
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